Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson

Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts
Headshot of a woman.

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the album, Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Maria Rosario Jackson:  I think when there’s an appreciation for our human capacity to create, to imagine, to invent, you know, that spreads.  That it’s not limiting, it’s expanding…  and so many possibilities open up when as people we are fully present, fully in our creative space, and can actually tap into head, heart and hand, right.  That there is the intellectual, the emotional, the physical, and that there’s this confluence that leads to impactful experiences that allow us to grow, that allow us to see the world in different ways and to advance as a society.

Jo Reed: That was the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson and this is Art Works, I'm Josephine Reed.

In late January, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson was sworn in as the 13th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.  A passionate advocate for the arts, Dr. Jackson brings to the job years of experience in comprehensive community building that focuses on the centrality of the arts, culture, and what she terms having an “artful life

The first African-American and Mexican American woman to chair the Arts Endowment, Dr. Jackson was a founding director of the Culture, Creativity and Communities Program at the Urban Institute and a senior research associate in Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. She was then senior advisor to the Arts and Culture Program as well as senior advisor to the Strategic Learning Research and Evaluation program at the Kresge Foundation. A graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles with a doctorate in urban planning, Dr. Jackson is a tenured Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, where she also holds an appointment in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.  Until her appointment as Chair, she sat on quite a few advisory boards, including the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; L.A. Commons, an arts intermediary organization focused on bridging communities through stories and creative practice, and the Music Center (aka Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County), one of the largest performing arts centers in the country.

Dr. Jackson also has a great deal of first-hand experience with the Arts Endowment as she has served on the National Council on the Arts since 2013.  And I’m only listing the highlights of an impactful career. Quite simply, it’s hard to imagine a person better positioned to lead the National Endowment for the Arts than Maria Rosario Jackson.

Dr. Jackson and I spoke last week, and she shared her thoughts about the arts and the arts endowment.  And, yes, those are songbirds that you’ll occasionally hear faintly in the background!

Jo Reed: Well, Dr. Jackson, I’d like to begin by saying “Congratulations!” and “Welcome!”. <laughs>

Maria Rosario Jackson: And I’m thrilled.  Thank you for that.

Jo Reed: Sure.  You know, you have long seen arts and culture as such a linchpin, so central for community vitality and development, and that makes me really curious about the community where you were raised.  Can you tell me about it?

Maria Rosario Jackson: Sure.  I grew up in South Los Angeles in the Crenshaw area, more specifically the Hyde Park neighborhood.  It was a, you know, primarily African-American community.  Lots of teachers, lots of people who worked in government.  There were many people who had roots in the South, and it was a cohesive community.  It was ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

Jo Reed: The arts were really important in your home as you were growing up, weren’t they?

Maria Rosario Jackson:  Yes. My parents felt very strongly that the arts were critical to helping us understand who they were and where we came from and what we were connected to.  So my father’s family’s migration pattern was from the South to the Midwest, and then some branched to California, and he resorted to the arts to help me understand that. Whether it was through literature or through song lyrics, it was really important for him as an African-American man that grew up in the Jim Crow era to feel like he connected his children to the most important and significant expressions of humanity that African-Americans delivered.  So that was part of our growing up.  That was in our home. And my mother, who’s an immigrant from Mexico, we would go to Mexico City every summer to visit grandparents and relatives as she didn’t have any family here outside of us, so that was our immersion in Mexican culture and she was very committed to making sure that we understood that culture and not just understood it intellectually but experienced it.  So that was part of our, you know, I say our, my brother and me, that was part of our upbringing.  That was part of our home.  Yeah.

Jo Reed: And I’m curious.  What moved you into urban planning?  Because it’s not the kind of career you’d think about a kid saying, “Oh, I want to be an urban planner when I grow up.”

Maria Rosario Jackson: No, it’s not.


Maria Rosario Jackson: It isn’t.  You know, career-wise, I kind of followed my nose.  I followed my questions. I started my university work in the School of Journalism at USC, at University of Southern California, and by the time I finished the undergraduate degree I had an appreciation for diverse dimensions of journalism, but I felt like I wanted to be closer to programs and initiatives that were really dealing with people and places and trying to expand opportunities for people in places, and then I pursued a Public Administration degree also at University of Southern California, and I was very young when I was in the graduate program and I was in school with people who were older and were sort of mid-career, and they were already in government at different levels, federal, county, city, and I had the benefit of naivete to ask questions. And I remember there was a class when we were talking about neighborhoods in the city and some of the neighborhoods that were coming up in conversation were adjacent to where I lived or close enough where I knew something about it or comprised of populations that I had connection to, and it occurred to me that their interpretation of the neighborhood and what was happening there and mine were very different, and I started thinking, “These people are already in positions of power where they’re making decisions based on their understanding of these communities, and their understanding of these communities is so vastly different from mine.  How do I show up in a way that helps to actually define what the issue is? What do I need to do to be involved in the framing of the issue that sets the sets the course for what will happen?”  So I started looking at other graduate programs and was like, “Where can I learn what I need to learn to be able to intervene in a way that changes narratives, that changes our understanding of what the issues are that need to be addressed?”  And at the time, UCLA, University of California in Los Angeles, had an urban planning program, and I think they still have some of this bent, but the urban planning program at that time really felt like a place where I could do that, where I could hone my skills in framing issues, issues that related to neighborhoods and people and opportunity.  So that’s how I landed in an urban planning program.  You know, I didn’t grow- <laughs> I didn’t grow up, as you said, aspiring to be an urban planner.  I don’t think I really knew what that was.

Jo Reed: <laughs> I don’t think most of us did. <laughs>

Maria Rosario Jackson: And, the field is an interesting and complicated field.  Sometimes it deals in the built environment and in regulations related to the built environment and some interpretations of it are much more comprehensive, where, yes, of course, we’re interested in the physicality of places and the design of places, but were also deeply interested in the policies and conditions and power arrangements that result in the conditions that we want to affect.

Jo Reed: You’re a pioneer in looking at and amplifying arts and culture as really key to community development and that it’s particularly crucial for historically marginalized communities.  I’m very curious about how you developed this work and came into this thinking?

Maria Rosario Jackson: Well, that’s generous of you to say that I’m a pioneer because I think that I stand on the shoulders of many.  But specifically, if you’re asking specifically about the role of arts and culture in all of this, I think that starts early.  That starts, you know, that impulse started at home with my parents and family and their conviction that arts and cultural activity and those kinds of experiences were absolutely critical.  So it never occurred to me that they weren’t.  It surprised me that other people thought that it didn’t matter or that it was extra.

Jo Reed: You honed this work at both the Urban Institute and then later at Kresge. How has the field evolved over the years and what are the partnerships that you’ve seen grow as this work has taken real root in the way people look at community development now.

Maria Rosario Jackson: So the years at the Urban Institute and then subsequently the years at Kresge, the Kresge Foundation, was continuous.  It was a stretch of time where I was working on different dimensions of the same thing and from different perches, and that was the integration of arts and culture and how we think about healthy communities.  When I was at the Urban Institute, that was an idea that didn’t quite have a strong foothold at the time, but I was working from a significant perch where I could at least begin to call the question and the work that happened over the course of about 18 years.  I think it began to get, at least, the question and the sensibility into the water.  So after a few years, I wasn’t coming to some conferences and forums completely cold.  These ideas and questions had begun to be socialized into a broader discourse or conversation about what community development entailed, what a healthy community required. And around 2012-- 2011, 2012-- when I started working with the Kresge Foundation, I was delighted that at that foundation there was no question that it was important, that it was part of what a healthy community required. That was so refreshing and so generative to not have to convince or make the case, and I think the work that was happening at the NEA, the work that Kresge was leading along with other funders that rallied around this concept of creative placemaking, that actually the NEA had a lot to do with helping to put forward, you know, that phrase, however perfect or imperfect it is, became a focal point,  and from my perspective, a way to gather and focus disparate efforts that were really about this integration of arts and culture in our concepts of healthy communities.  So I think that in the years that followed, that effort, coupled with what the NEA was doing, coupled with what Kresge and some others were doing independently, really created some traction. There was a concerted effort around field building and helping to connect the people who were active in this area advance research and evaluation practices that the work requires.  Funding actual work at the local level, connecting with and investing in national intermediaries that help establish what the industry standards are when it comes to community development and urban planning, when it comes to our notion of arts.  So I think that that bundle of investments and attention has been really important in this kind of work getting some traction, having some community around it, and even thinking about next generation, particularly for historically marginalized communities.  So I think over the years I have seen attention and intention and investment in these particular dimensions of work around integration of arts and culture.

Jo Reed: You and the NEA actually go back quite a way, <laughs> about a decade, when President Obama appointed you to the National Council on the Arts.  For people who might not know about the National Council on the Arts, what is the work of the council?

Maria Rosario Jackson: My connection to the NEA actually goes back even before that in that when I was at the Urban Institute, and part of the work there was about advancing this notion of arts and culture as part of healthy communities, there was work with the research office and it was focused on expanding the categories and understanding of participation in the arts with the SPPA, the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, and then a few years after that I was a panelist, I think it was for the first Our Town Panel, the first investment through the Our Town program.  I think it was the first one.  And then the connection to the NEA through President Obama’s appointment to the National Council, and the National Council, I mean, the main purpose of it is to be an advisory body to the chair, to the agency, and to review and make recommendations for support in terms of the kinds of grants and programmatic investments that the agency makes.  So that’s the primary role.

Jo Reed: When you began working more closely with the NEA, did anything surprise you about the agency?

Maria Rosario Jackson: You know, the thing that surprised me the most was how much it did that wasn’t visible, or at least visible to me, and I had some, you know, some connection to it.  The range, depth and breadth of the work that happens at the Arts Endowment is amazing, and I think people only know just the tip of the iceberg.  So I think that’s what surprised me the most was all of the work that the Arts Endowment does that may not be as well-known.  The other thing that surprised me is what happens behind the curtain, what happens behind the scenes, and the level of dedication and commitment that the staff has to all of the technical work that has to happen in order for the grants to be made, for the convenings to happen, for the technical assistance to be available, you know, all the things.  There’s a lot.  There’s a lot, and it is a beautifully choreographed body of work that the Arts Endowment has delivered excellently for years now, and I don’t think people know that.

Jo Reed: I know it’s early days, but what are your priorities for the Arts Endowment?

Maria Rosario Jackson: It is early days and I am enjoying listening and learning from staff and from people who are working in all parts of the country on what I think is my language around what we’re aiming for, is for people to have artful lives, and I think there’s a lot to build from already that I think is aligned with the strengths that I bring to the Arts Endowment, and some of that has to do with understanding the intersections of arts and.  So, and let me be clear, arts is important.  The arts are important, period.  And they are critically important at the intersection of areas like health and community development.  So the ability to work with other federal agencies I think is really important, and showing up as a partner with something to offer I think is something to build from.  I think the agency has done that in the past and I would like to build on that and understand where those intersections are most strategic and timely now.  So there’s a little bit of the direction that I’m interested in going, which probably is not surprising, because it’s very consistent with the work I’ve done throughout my career.  So there’s definitely attention to that and the connection of the arts to our notion of just and equitable communities in creating places where people can thrive.  That to me is super-important, and I think that, again, there’s a lot to build from and there are areas, I think, that over the next few years we will also be able to imagine and implement.

Jo Reed: Well, you’ve said you take an elastic view of the arts and culture, and I’d like you to say a little bit more about that and whether that might inform the work of the agency going forward.

Maria Rosario Jackson:   So, the elastic view, I think, has a lot to do with believing that people engage the arts in many ways, and the dominant way that we’ve thought about it as a society is either as-- it’s the receiving part, right, it’s the audience part, the visitor, the viewer, and I think that’s critically important.  I also think though that people make, do, teach, create, support.  You know, there are all these other verbs that have to do with a comprehensive notion of engagement, and I think that that’s what it takes to have a healthy life.  You know, that diversity of ways of engaging.  So there’s elasticity in understanding what engagement means and I think there’s also elasticity in understanding whose aesthetics matter.  So we’re blessed to live in a country that has such rich cultural diversity, and lifting up that rich, cultural diversity, I think, is critically important.  So there’s elasticity related to appreciation for that diversity.  Did that answer the question?

Jo Reed: It did.  It did.  As you were talking I was-- this is completely dating me-- but I was thinking of Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” and the way she talked about her mother creating that garden and what it meant, and that is certainly not what we think of, and I’m using air quotes here, “when we think of art,” but it is absolutely art.

Maria Rosario Jackson: It’s part of having an artful life, for sure.

Jo Reed: Yeah.  Exactly,

Maria Rosario Jackson: Right.

Jo Reed: Which is a more precise way of putting it.  Yes.

Maria Rosario Jackson: It’s definitely a dimension of having an artful life, and I think when there’s an appreciation for our human capacity to create, to imagine, to invent, you know, that spreads.  That it’s not limiting, it’s expanding.  I think when people have a taste of or a practice of their-- a taste of an arts experience that is active or have that as part of their personal practice, it doesn’t undercut the other ways of participating.  It only makes those other ways of participating more important.  So I think that it’s a win-win when you start looking at these different ways of engaging and recognize that as you embrace that it all gets stronger or has the potential to get stronger, and so many possibilities open up when as people we are fully present, fully in our creative space, and can actually tap into head, heart and hand, right.  That there is the intellectual, the emotional, the physical, and that there’s this confluence that leads to impactful experiences that allow us to grow, that allow us to see the world in different ways and to advance as a society.

Jo Reed: Where do you see the Arts Endowment in the cultural landscape?

Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.  I think the Arts Endowment plays several roles in the cultural landscape, and one of the roles that I’m very drawn to is the Arts Endowment as a partner in helping to strengthen local cultural ecologies, and I think of local cultural ecologies as somewhat porous.  I do not believe that the arts exist in a bubble, and that we think, when we think about arts ecologies, it has to be inclusive of those intersections that are so important.  So I think that one of the roles, not the only role, but one of the roles, particularly now in a time when we are moving through an era-defining pandemic, when we are in the midst of I think rebuilding or mending our country, when there has been polarization, when there has been a reckoning, again, with things that we have to address and deal with, you know, there’s racial reckoning and I think more understanding about both difference and shared humanity, I think that there’s an opportunity to challenge ourselves to reimagine, “What does a cultural ecology encompass?  What does it mean?  What does it make possible?” and I think that the Arts Endowment is a critical partner in that.

Jo Reed: The NEA has provided support to arts organizations who have been deeply affected by the pandemic, and that goes into my next question about how you see that support continuing as we move into reopening.  Clearly, we have a finite budget.  It can’t just be about money.  What are some other ways you can see the NEA extending its support to arts organizations-- particularly at this moment as we’re not just reopening but, as you said, reimagining, rethinking?  It’s a real opportunity.

Maria Rosario Jackson: It is a real opportunity, and I think that the Arts Endowment has a role to play in helping us to harvest what it is that we need to have learned over the past few years and turn that into the next and better version of the arts as an area of practice, as an area of policy, as a dimension of our civic infrastructure, if you will.  I think that the Arts Endowment has a role to play as a convener, as an entity that helps to distill the ideas that we need to heed, the lessons that we should pay attention to.  So there’s something that has to do with addressing the things that are for sure urgent, sometimes with money, sometimes with other kinds of resources, but also, at the same time, creating space for the kind of reflection and planning that I think this particular time compels.

Jo Reed:  That seems to relate to a concept you developed called “cultural kitchens,” which you say is critical to communities in a number of ways. Would you explain the idea of cultural kitchens?

Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.  So the idea of cultural kitchens is-- it’s recognition that communities need places where they can come together in a generative way with the intention of working together and figuring out what it is that they want to put out in the world.  And let me back up a little bit and talk a little bit about the origins of cultural kitchens.  So some years ago, I was asked to write a book chapter in a book that was focused on race, ethnicity and cities, and the only chapter was on arts and culture was the one that I had been invited to do, and the rest of the book was focused on housing and education and other fields and policy areas that are critically important, but this was the only one that was on arts and culture. I was trying to figure out how to introduce the centrality of an elastic definition of arts and culture. I started thinking about when politicians and others tout the virtues of a place, they often talk about the diversity of the place as a virtue, and typically what is celebrated are those spaces where that diversity converges, and what occurred to me that we don’t give a lot of attention to is what are the places where you actually make the culture that you are supposed to bring to this table, if you will?  You know, if you’re invited to the potluck, if you’re invited to participate at this table with others, where do you make the stuff that you’re wanting to share?  And the notion of cultural kitchen occurred to me as a way of talking about those places where people come together, and what happens when they come together is sometimes very arts-focused and culture-based and other times it is so very naturally integrated with this idea of care and caring for each other as a community. There’s also an element of it that has to do with repair, and particularly for groups that have had historic harm done to cultural root, the ability to repair that cultural root is critically important and it happens in what I think of as cultural kitchens. 

Jo Reed: And you see this concept being incorporated into the work of the Arts Endowment

Maria Rosario Jackson: I think it’s already there.  I think finding ways, to the extent that that concept is helpful, as the Arts Endowment embraces its role in contributing to healthy communities, it may show up, right? But some of the organizations that the Arts Endowment has supported over the years could potentially be understood as cultural kitchens.  The work itself, I don’t think, is new to the Arts Endowment.  I think the focus on it as a critical element of a healthy community might be something that might be a new emphasis, let’s say.

Jo Reed: Amplified.

Maria Rosario Jackson: Yes.

Jo Reed: I wonder what you think is most crucial right now as you step into this new role?

Maria Rosario Jackson: I think it’s really crucial that I listen.  So I’ve had proximity to the Arts Endowment for a number of years and have been very proud of that connection, but I don’t imagine or fool myself into thinking that I know everything I need to know about the organization, so I still have a learning curve.  So I think that’s crucial.  I think that being very conscious of our environment and our context currently.  Coming through and hopefully out of this pandemic era and what that requires and what it makes possible is something else that is really crucial.  I think that figuring out the how to build on the Arts Endowment’s efforts to truly reach every American or every American community, and understanding that there may be new ways of working that are worth paying attention to or devising in order to do that well.  I think that’s crucial.  So, I mean, those are some of the things that come to mind immediately, Jo.

Jo Reed: You have a robust platform, and I’m sure these are some of the conversations you want to begin or amplify.  Are there others too?

Maria Rosario Jackson: There is a robust platform, and I think that this idea of artful lives being a critically important precondition for some of the other things that we say we aspire to as a nation, I think that’s something that I would really like to lift up and give voice to, because I don’t think that the arts are often understood in that way.  That if the arts help us reconceive of issues in new ways, if they help us get unstuck, if they help us show up fully and do our best work, help us see connections where we may not have seen them before or different ways of approaching complex issues, critically important complex issues, I think that understanding of the arts is something that I would definitely like to give voice to.

Jo Reed: And what are you excited about right now in looking at the year ahead?

Maria Rosario Jackson: Yeah.  I’m excited about the people that I get to work with at the Arts Endowment, because, as I said, I have deep respect for what they’ve done over the years, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom there.  So I’m excited to learn from them.  I’m excited about the fact that we are at a time in history where we are compelled to pause and think differently.  I am excited, and I am also fearful that we might miss this opportunity to rethink how we do things and improve.  The impulse to snap back exactly to what was before I don’t think is necessarily a healthy impulse.  We should’ve learned something from this, and figuring out what we have learned and what it means for our next version of ourselves, that I’m excited about.

Jo Reed: Dr. Jackson, I think this is a great place to leave it.  Thank you so much, and I, too, am looking forward to the possibilities and the opportunities that are ahead.

Maria Rosario Jackson: Likewise, Jo.  Thank you.

Jo Reed: That was the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson. You'll be hearing a lot more from her and her vision for the arts in the days and weeks ahead.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. 

Follow us on Apple podcasts or Google Play and leave us a rating—it helps people to find us!

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Stay Safe and thanks for listening.


Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, the 13th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, is no stranger to the Arts Endowment having had a great deal of first-hand experience with the agency as she has served on the National Council on the Arts since 2013.  She comes to the position of chair with years of experience in comprehensive community building that focuses on the centrality of the arts, culture, and supports what she terms an “artful life.”  The first African American and Mexican American woman to chair the Arts Endowment, Chair Jackson received her doctorate in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles.  Her resume is long, deep, and rich, with notable work at the Urban Institute, Kresge Foundation, and as Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, where she also holds an appointment in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. In this thoughtful and engaging conversation, Chair Jackson shares her thoughts about the arts, an artful life, and the Arts Endowment at this time of reopening, rethinking, and reimagining the arts landscape.